“Someone called me and said, ‘The building collapsed,’” said Rosalie Downey, recalling the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. “And I said, ‘My husband must be there.’”
Her husband was Deputy Chief Ray Downey, head of the Special Operations Command of the Fire Department of the City of New York. He was one of the country’s leading experts on rescue operations at collapsed buildings.
Of course he was there. Not only because it was his job, but because Ray Downey seemed always to be “there” when somebody needed his help.
In 1993, Downey had led the rescue efforts when terrorists detonated a truck bomb below the North Tower of the World Trade Center. In 1995, he served as operations chief for the Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces after the Oklahoma City bombing. The following year, he traveled to Puerto Rico to coordinate rescue efforts in the aftermath of the Humberto Vidal explosion. And the list goes on.
Few people in the world were better prepared to respond to the 9/11 attacks than Ray Downey, a member of Our Lady of the Rosary Council 4428 in Deer Park, N.Y. But on that tragic day 20 years ago, the man known by the members of his elite unit as the “Master of Disaster” was not going to make it back home.
Ray and Rosalie Downey raised their five children — Joe, Marie, Chuck, Ray Jr. and Kathy — in Deer Park, 40 miles east of Manhattan on Long Island. At home, Ray didn’t talk much about his accomplishments or Hollywood-worthy missions and rescues.
Two of his sons, Joe and Chuck — both members of Our Lady of the Rosary Council 4428 — would become FDNY firefighters. Joe is now battalion chief of rescue operations, a unit of Special Operations Command, which his father led at the time of his death. Chuck was recently promoted to deputy chief. But as kids, they didn’t really understand their father’s legendary stature in the fire department.
“As we grew up, and especially as my brother Chuck and I got into the FD, we realized that he was a very well-respected hero in the FD,” Joe said about his father. “But he was very humble, so we didn’t know that. We had to hear it from others.”
What Ray Downey did talk about at home was faith, hard work and responsibility. He had been a Marine for four years before joining the FDNY — and he never stopped being one.
‘Suddenly, I heard that noise … the North Tower was coming down. I remember looking and that was my last view at Ray. And his hand, his hand was up, assisting somebody to get down.’
“He was a strong man. He tried to give us good values: going to church and working hard,” Joe remembered. “He was not an easy guy; he was pretty strict. He had high values and we all respected him for that.”
While Downey was working at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, he met Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. “Ray, are you Catholic?” Keating asked. Downey replied, “Is the pope Catholic?” The governor gave Downey a rosary that he carried with him continually.
Being a Knight of Columbus was the focal point where Ray Downey’s Catholic faith, his love for his family, and his dedication to his community came together.
“He always wanted to be [a Knight],” Rosalie Downey said. His father had been a grand knight of his council in Queens in the early 1940s; Ray followed in his steps and joined the Order in 1965, a few years after joining the fire department. The Knights of Columbus soon became a family affair.
“I joined the Columbiettes,” said Mrs. Downey. “And the kids were involved because they started a football league. It was like family.”
The council hall in Deer Park became a second home for the Downeys. The property included several fields, and Our Lady of the Rosary Council 4428 organized numerous sports teams.
“[My father] coached the football program and hockey. My mother coached cheerleading down there. So, basically, our weekends were spent at the Knights of Columbus,” Joe explained.
“We grew up on that field,” added Chuck.
Vinnie DiPasquale, past grand knight of the council, recalls meeting Downey for the first time at a football game. As he approached the field, he saw a man hobbling to the huddle, dragging a leg that was in a cast up to the knee. It was Ray Downey.
“No broken leg was going to prevent him from coaching those kids,” said DiPasquale, who became one of Downey’s closest friends.
The kids were having fun, of course, but they were also getting to know the mission of the Knights.
“There was sports and all that stuff, but at the end of the day it was about charity and all the things they did for our community,” said Kathy Ugalde, Downey’s youngest child.
Following their father’s example, all three Downey boys became Knights in their 20s. Marie and Kathy, like their mother, joined the council’s women’s auxiliary, the Columbiettes.
In 2002, when Father’s Day was approaching, the Downey family came together to discuss how they might honor their father, some nine months after his death. That was how they started the Raymond M. Downey “Forever Running” Memorial 5K Run. The annual event draws hundreds of runners and raises funds for numerous scholarships and charitable organizations, including the New York Firefighters Burn Center Foundation.
From the very beginning, Ray’s brother Knights have helped with the event, registering runners, handing out water and grilling food for the crowd. The 5K ends at the council sports fields, now the Raymond Downey Sports Complex.
The race is a fitting tribute to Ray Downey. He ran every other day, and he lived his life like a race. On Sept. 11, his finish line was the World Trade Center. The South Tower had already collapsed, leaving the adjacent Marriott hotel in ruins. Ray Downey was there along with FDNY Capt. Al Fuentes, acting battalion chief in the department’s Marine Division. Fuentes, a member of George H. Hudson Council 3701 in Woodside, Queens, had worked with Ray Downey for six years. He was the last person to see him alive.
Downey and Fuentes spotted people trapped among the debris of the hotel.
“Ray said to me, ‘Stay here and let me know when we can come out. So he proceeded even further into what was left of the Marriott,” Fuentes said, his voice cracking as he recalled those final moments.
“I gave them the signal to get out and they were hesitating,” Fuentes continued. “I’m screaming at them, ‘Get out. Get out.’ There was some open area with debris coming down and jumpers and everything, so they weren’t coming out. I started taking a couple of steps toward them to give them a hand. And then, suddenly, I heard that noise. I turned up to my left, and the North Tower was coming down. It was that raging noise again. I remember looking and that was my last view at Ray. And his hand, his hand was up, assisting somebody to get down.”
Minutes before, Ray Downey had ordered two young firefighters — in language that was clear and emphatic — to get out of there. He knew perfectly well what his options were: get out and save his life or try to save as many lives as possible until the second tower fell and buried him. He knew this, and he walked toward the ruins of the Marriott, with the rosary from Gov. Keating in his pocket.
Downey was one of 403 firefighters and law enforcement personnel killed that day in New York City, including at least 18 Knights. A total of 46 Knights died in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Our Lady of the Rosary Council lost three members: Ray Downey, his fellow firefighter Donald J. Burns and New York police detective Joseph Vigiano.
Vinnie DiPasquale, then grand knight of Council 4428, delivered one of the eulogies at Downey’s funeral.
“Once in a lifetime, someone comes along who affects everyone he comes into contact with in a positive way,” he said. “Ray was that person in our lifetime.”
JORGE I. DOMÍNGUEZ-LÓPEZ is a freelance editor and writer based on Long Island, N.Y.
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